She Gets So Sick of Crying

When we decided to produce American Idiot, there was one huge question I knew I had to answer. What will we do with the song "Extra­ordinary Girl," during which the original Broadway production had this gorgeous I Dream of Jeannie aerial ballet?

I struggled with this for months. The script says about the song:
The morphine has kicked in. Tunny begins to hallucinate. He sees a girl in a burqa, flying in from above. The Extra­ordinary Girl does a flying striptease for Tunny. She looks just like his nurse – if his nurse were Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie. Tunny's leg seems to heal itself and he flies up to join her in a midair ballet.

This was very cool in the original production, very trippy, weirdly beautiful. But I knew we couldn't do an aerial ballet. So what would we do in its place? Even after I had blocked the rest of the show, I couldn't figure out this number.

Finally, it hit me. The same thing that hits me during many shows. I was asking the wrong question. The question isn't what do we do instead of what original director Michael Mayer did. The question is what's going on in Tunny's head during this drug trip?

And that freed me.

I was never going to find an acceptable substitute for an aerial ballet, and it was stupid to keep searching, more than anything because that's not my job as a director, to "respond" to other productions. As with every other show, there are no "right" answers. Michael Mayer's answers were beautiful, but those were his answers, for a multi-million dollar production in a big theatre in New York. When I saw it in NYC, I had a great seat, but I was still pretty far from the actors.

I had to find our answers, that matched our approach to the story, for our intensely intimate production in a blackbox theatre with only seven rows of audience.

As much as I loved the original staging of "Extraordinary Girl," now that I was studying the script closely, I realized I didn't totally understand the point of the hallucination. I understood Tunny's need for escape, his weird romanticizing of the Middle East, but how does the I Dream of Jeannie strip-tease connect to the central themes of the show? How did that illustrate the Hero's Journey that Tunny is taking? And the terrible damage the War on Terror has done to him? I think the answer is that this number in the original production primarily revealed character, and in our production it will hopefully do both that and carry through the central theme about the destruction the War on Terror and its authors created.

So I went to Google and started reading about the dreams and hallucinations of veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD. Very sobering stuff. It's all about violence and death, committed by them, or witnessed by them, or at least the horrific aftermath of violence witnessed by them. One guy wrote about waking up at night and seeing a young girl drenched in blood sitting on a chair in his bedroom. It happened night after night.

After reading this stuff, I realized that's what we want to communicate to the audience. This is the real damage done to Tunny.

So we're not going to reference Middle East culture in the staging or costumes. Instead we'll show the psychic and moral destruction of war that veterans carry with them forever. We're going to focus on psychedelic images of violence and death, and lots of blood, but in dark, weird, psychedelic lighting, so it's hard to see exactly what you're looking at; and we'll let the music alone add the subconscious influence of the Middle East on Tunny's bloody delusions. In creepy counterpoint to all that will be the song's lyric, suggesting this meeting of two fucked-up misfits, who recognize in each other a damaged but kindred soul. Neither feels like they belong in this world, but finding someone else who feels that way is powerful.

Except they can't stay together... Because she's not real...

In the original production, the staging for this song was a kind of haunting, visual-poetic parallel to the lyric. In our production, the staging will be a disturbing, dissonant counterpoint, suggesting that Tunny can never again separate violence and death from the rest of life. Now, even love and desire are over-shadowed, tainted, by death. And Tunny can't even see how damaged he is... or how bloody his new girlfriend is...

He sings, as the drug trip begins...
She's an extraordinary girl
In an ordinary world,
And she can't seem to get away.

Tunny can see that they are alike, misfits, outsiders, trapped by circumstances. Maybe she's a mirror of how he sees himself – a hero trapped by fate in a hospital bed. In our staging of this song, more George Romero than Cirque du Soleil, those lines will take on an extra creepy flavor.

She recognizes his pain in herself. She knows how he feels, the impotence, the hopelessness. She sings:
He lacks the courage in his mind,
Like a child left behind,
Like a pet left in the rain.

They're true kindred spirits. Or they would be, if she weren't a product of his hallucination. They feel the same way because they are both Tunny. She knows how he feels because she is him. The rock gets a little harder and Tunny sings:
She's all alone again,
Wiping the tears from her eyes.

We know he's describing himself, alone in his hospital, with a leg missing. She sings:
Some days he feels like dying.

He sings:
She gets so sick of crying.

It's a really effective, poetic way of dramatizing Tunny's desire to separate from unwanted emotions – swapping the lyric between them, giving them each total insight into the other, underlining the fact that this is not the messy terrain of the real world, but an interior, psychological, Fight Club type landscape. Now Tunny, having already split into two (himself and Extraordinary Girl), splits further, into alter-egos for both him and Ex. Girl. Now there are four Tunnys singing. First, his two male voices:
She sees the mirror of herself,
An image she wants to sell,
To anyone willing to buy.

Maybe Tunny is finally realizing that he's been living by other people's measures and expectations, by others' definitions of manhood and patriotism, rather than finding and following his own path. But in the context of our story, we have to wonder if the "she" of this song is also America. This last lyric certainly makes sense in that context. Or is "she" war... or the War on Terror?

Maybe the point is that Extra­ordinary Girl does not show her authentic self to anyone, only what they want to see, or what she needs them to see to get what she wants. She stands in for America under Bush-Cheney, trying to manipulate Tunny (and all of us) instead of leveling with him.

Tunny's two female voices continue:
He steals the image in her kiss,
From her heart's apocalypse,
From the one called Whatsername.

Is this Billie Joe Armstrong's way of telling us that Tunny was seduced by Bush and Cheney's America? Or if she represents war, maybe Tunny was seduced by the John Wayne patriotism of post-9/11 America, seduced by the swagger, fearlessness, and self-righteousness of George W. Bush. On the original album, this song seems much more straight-forward, but here in the show, the mention of Whatsername creates an interesting mashup of characters, subtly blending our lead characters together into a universal whole. Extra­ordinary Girl and Whatsername (notice that neither has a real name) become one. We were all seduced. But we were seduced by phantoms and shadows...

And particularly in the more violent, freaky context our production will create, the phrase "her heart's apocalypse" will take on even heavier resonance.

The song now returns to the two original voices, repeating earlier lyrics, with a subtle change at the end.

Tunny sings:
She's all alone again,
Wiping the tears from her eyes.

Extraordinary Girl sings:
Some days he feels like dying...

Tunny sings:
She gets so sick of crying.

The lyric now feels deeper and more complex than in its first appearance, and we see again the complete empathy and total connection these two feel for each other. They'd be perfect for each other, if she were real, if she weren't a fantasy (extra- or beyond, ordinary), while Tunny is stuck in reality (an ordinary world).

Tunny and Extraordinary Girl sing together for the first time, repeating the more aggressive bridge. As in most musicals, we know they belong together because they harmonize.
She's all alone again,
Wiping the tears from her eyes.
Some days he feels like dying,
Some days it's not worth trying,
Now that they both are finding...

Tunny sings alone:
She gets so sick of crying.

They're both struggling along the road of life, but at least now they can struggle together. Except she's not real. And as the hallucination ends, the ensemble repeats the title line:
She's an extraordinary girl...
An extraordinary girl...
An extraordinary girl...
An extraordinary girl...

After the song, the script says, "The Extra­ordinary Girl brings Tunny back to his gurney and flies away into space. He is left with the other soldiers in agony." The song segues directly into a reprise of "Before the Lobotomy," as Tunny and three men sing, "Dreaming, I was only dreaming..."

But we're left to wonder, do Tunny and the others mean that they were dreaming just now, or have they awakened from the dark seduction of the war mongers, just as Johnny has to wake up from the dark seduction of sex and drugs.

American Idiot is a story about waking up. The dramatic climax for these characters, the moment they decide to engage their lives, is in the song "Wake Me Up When September Ends," at the end of which Johnny says to himself – or is it to us? – "Time to wake up."

Waking up represents both the coming to self-awareness and knowledge that they have to grow up, and also the ability to see through the bullshit and manipulation of mainstream society. As in The Matrix, waking up is about seeing the truth you couldn't see before, the truth that most other people can't see.

American Idiot is an intelligent, sophisticated, subversive, thoughtful piece of theatre, set to the only kind of music that could express the size of the rage and love in this story, authentic contemporary punk.

Thinking about the song "Extra­ordinary Girl" reminds me of the song "Extra­ordinary," one of my favorites from Pippin. In both songs, our heroes are convinced they are extraordinary, different, darker, and more complex than the rest of us. But they both learn later that everybody feels that way at some point, that the truly extra­ordinary path is to embrace your own ordinary life, to find richness in the world as it is.

There's a reason that these are the last words the show leaves us with:
It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.

On stage, that last line being in the second person really packs a wallop. At the end of the show, the audience has had the "time of their life" because they've just witnessed a triple Hero Myth, and a Hero Myth is just a human life in miniature. The audience has literally had the time of their lives. So when the cast sings "you," they mean you. And the first of these last two lines here also takes on extra resonance when it's put in this context. Now, as an epilogue, it comments on the Hero Myth stories we've just experienced. Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics are so relentlessly truthful – life is unpredictable, but if you stay on your path, it will turn out right in the end.

This is such a powerful, truthful, well-crafted piece of theatre. I can't wait to share it with you.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

1 comments: